What We Talk About When We Talk About Buildings

How will critics react to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s new wing, and how will it fit into the city’s architectural story? A symposium next week aims to answer these questions.

Next week Tel Aviv joins the long list of cities around the world with art museums in contemporary, state-of-the-art buildings. What began with the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain in the late 1990s began a mushrooming global trend of investing in the architecture of cultural institutions. Bilbao turned from a sleepy industrial city into a Mecca for lovers of art and design and experienced an economic renaissance. The museum's architect, Frank Gehry, set a new standard for architectural grandstanding and became a pole of attraction for other cities seeking similar recognition.

Once conservative and inflexible institutions, museums today are urban landmarks, playgrounds for bold architectural games. The new wing of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, designed by Preston Scott Cohen, is no exception. This very impressive and complex building is sure to become a familiar icon in short order.

Paul Amir Building - Daniel Tchetchik - October 2011
Daniel Tchetchik

The celebratory launch of the new wing began yesterday and will continue for a week. On Tuesday "New Angle, International Symposium on Contemporary Museum Architecture," will be held at the museum. The stated purpose of the symposium is examining the contribution of the Herta and Paul Amir Building, to contemporary architectural discourse, or in the words of conference chairman Dr. Eran Neuman, "its significance in relation to current developments abroad." Neuman, chairman of Tel Aviv University's Azrieli School of Architecture, believes museums are the cathedrals of the 21st century, or "the monuments of our age."

Taking the new wing as a representative of this phenomenon, participants will discuss key topics in contemporary architecture such as relationships between complex morphology and usability, and between localism and globalism.

The symposium is divided into three panels. The first, led by architect Carmela Jacoby Volk, will focus on the new wing's contribution to the architectural discourse.

"Even before it was built the building earned international recognition for its great contribution to advancing contemporary architecture," the symposium program states. The superlatives were as much for the new wing's superb photogenic qualities as for its bold design. Panelists Sylvia Lavin, Daniel Sherer and Jeffrey Kipnis, all professors at leading U.S. universities, will examine the elusive link between innovative design and tradition and the reciprocal influences between art and architecture.

The second session, led by Prof. Elinoar Barzacchi-Komissar of Tel Aviv University, will ask whether the new wing can be seen as part of Israeli architectural history. She will be joined by Neuman and Prof. Amnon Bar Or from Tel Aviv University and Alona Nitzan Shiftan from Haifa's Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

According to Bar Or, the new wing is part of the "grand story" Tel Aviv has been telling itself for the past century.

"The Tel Aviv Museum of Art holds a special place in the city's cultural canon, from its first abode in the home of Mayor Meir Dizengoff, through the Helena Rubenstein Pavilion, established in 1957, and the main building, from 1971," Bar Or said. "Each of these buildings represents progressiveness and modernity, a kind of 'Kunsthalle' or temple to the arts. The new building will undoubtedly soon become one more image in the prestigious chain of the city's success stories, to the neglect of other stories that will be consigned to oblivion so as not to spoil the party," Bar Or said.

"This building matches the contemporary image we want to adopt for 'the State of Tel Aviv,'" Bar Or added. "The question is whether visitors to the new wing will have a significant experience despite or because of its innovative and surprising shell. It is a very demanding building, a work of art in itself."

But Bar Or think it is too early to heap academic interpretations onto the new wing. "It is difficult to speak about a building from such a close perspective. We have not yet seen how the exhibitions work in the galleries and how the public uses the transitional spaces. Anyone talking about the building at this stage does something very superficial and wrong, in my opinion."

Affordable prices?

Overall, the symposium seems closer to the party atmosphere of the building launch than to the political and critical storms raging over the roles of art and cultural institutions in the 21st century. The program lacks even a hint of the summer's very vocal social protest throughout Israel, that sparked the "artists' protest" against the conduct of the museum's board of directors and the search committee tasked with finding a new director.

"If criticism is broadening knowledge and opinions, there will be a lot of that in the symposium," Neuman said in response. "We are only beginning to unpack the meanings of the new wing; it must first be absorbed into Israeli culture, and only then will we be able to assess it. The symposium is a first attempt, more will follow," Neuman said.

It should be mentioned that tickets to the symposium are NIS 260, or NIS 230 for members of the Israel Architects Association. The steep price goes against the desire to make the new wing accessible to the public in general and the architectural community in particular.

Officials attribute the high prices to high organizing costs and the participation of guests from abroad. They say that despite the sponsorship of several organizations the event will probably lose money.

Other recent locally held architectural and design conferences charged similar fees: Tickets for a lecture by the Japanese architecture team of Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizama at the Holon Museum of Design cost NIS 220.

The symposium's final session will focus on computer-based digital design, reviewing the existing technologies used in the Amir Building's design and the new technologies or construction methods were developed in the course of its planner. The four panelists are prominent figures in architecture and the digital discourse. The most notable is Dutch architect Ben van Berkel of UNStudio. In a recent interview with Haaretz, at the opening to the public of the firm's New Amsterdam Pavilion, in Manhattan, he spoke of how Holland's population density and modest size support creativity and innovation in design. In his lecture, "Motion Matters," Van Berkel will present new and old projects by the studio in the Netherlands and beyond.

Van Berkel will be followed by Jesse Reiser and Nanako Umemoto, a husband-and-wife team of architects who have gained international recognition despite the small scale of most of their projects. They recently completed O-14, an intriguing Dubai skyscraper whose concrete shell is also the building's exoskeleton. The last speaker of this session is the Madrid-based architect Inaki Abalos, who will discuss thermodynamic aspects of architecture.

The symposium will end, fittingly, with a tribute lecture by Cohen, the new wing's architect, who will discuss the warm client-architect relationship that developed over the years between him and the museum's late director, Prof. Mordechai Omer.